By Susan Morse
Hampton Union, Friday, November 11, 2005
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
[Photo by Jamie Cohen]
SEABROOK - Prompted by infestations of mold, fleas and lack of wheelchair access, the Hampton District Court closed this week and employees are preparing to start sessions in a new, temporary home in Seabrook on Monday.
The state has signed a three-year lease for an industrial-looking building at 130 Ledge Road in Seabrook, to serve as district court for the Seacoast.
The new Hampton District Court, as it will still be called, is about six miles away from the old Winnacunnet Road courthouse in Hampton, but much further away in demeanor.
The old white wooden building, which housed the courthouse for as long as anyone can remember, was more than 100 years old and had the character of any century-old home. It also had its drawbacks. Staffers found mice droppings in the old files stored in the basement. The cardboard file boxes were also water-damaged by pipes that burst during a cold winter two years ago.
Mold grew on the ceiling tiles of the upstairs courtroom. More than once, the place was fumigated for fleas.
Hampton, which owns the site, has offered the building and the adjacent and vacant former Hampton town hall to the state as a location for a permanent Hampton District Court, possibly combined with an Exeter District Court. Both buildings would be torn down. Both likely contain asbestos.
In contrast, the temporary Hampton District Court has clean white walls and fluorescent lights, offset by business-like gray carpeting.
Outside it looks like any other industrial park building made of cinderblock and beige metal.
The new courtroom is on the ground floor - anyone in a wheelchair or who has trouble climbing stairs can enter. It's naturally bright inside thanks to a row of windows that look out on a patch of woods.
Old wooden chairs strewn around the courtroom on Tuesday looked out of place in the new building.
There's also a classic wooden judge's bench, brought over not from the old Hampton courtroom but from somewhere else.
Judge Francis J. Frasier, who was moving his own boxes, laughed as he opened the small drawer to his new desk. Inside, someone had scribbled in pencil, "This is the old fart's bench."
"It's a nice clean adequate building," said Hampton District Court Clerk John Clark, who was packing books in the old judge's chambers on Tuesday. "Yeah, we're going to miss it. This building has been a friend."
Clark and Frasier have been together in the Hampton District Court for 20 years.
Their last day upstairs in the old courtroom was Monday. Both were too busy to think about it being their final day, said Clark.
"We did arraignments, a search warrant, and were busy with criminal arraignments in the afternoon," Clark said. "It was classically just a typical busy district court day. I guess it was a good way to end."
Frasier was sworn in as judge 25 years ago. Some speculated he would retire with the close of the old building.
Frasier is staying, he indicated, but will be forced by state law to step down in three years when he turns 70. Since the lease of the temporary courthouse is for three years, Frasier will not preside over a new, permanent Hampton District Court, wherever it is placed.
A 70th birthday recently forced Judge Edward McDermott, who served in the Hampton District Court when Frasier was on vacation or ill, to retire.
Frasier swore in McDermott's replacement, Judge Mark Weaver of Greenland, last Friday. Frasier began his term in the court as a special judge under Al Casassa, when Hampton was a part-time court.
Casassa was both a judge and a lawyer. When the district court went full time, Casassa was given the choice of being a full-time lawyer or a full-time judge, said Frasier. He chose the former.
Frasier then moved up to take his place, becoming the Hampton District Court's first full-time judge in March 1980.
"I like the continuity," he said, carrying his own robes to the car for the move south.